Ask Dr. Forgiveness

I have a friend who could benefit from forgiving her mom, but I am not sure what the best way is to introduce the topic to her. Any suggestions about how to do this so she takes it seriously?

There are two ways I would suggest introducing forgiveness to your friend. The first one is what I would call the “lighter” approach. If you are watching a film in which there is a theme of forgiveness, try to make this into a teaching moment by simply and gently discussing what injustice happened, how the forgiver went about the forgiveness task, and what the outcome was. It could plant a seed.

The second approach is to focus on your friend’s pain as a result of the hurt from her mom. Pain is a great attention-getter and motivator. If you can enter into a discussion of the friend’s emotional pain, and then let her know that there is a solution to this pain, she may listen. When you tell her the solution is forgiveness, she may balk at first, but tell her the truth: Forgiveness can reduce anger, anxiety, and depression and increase hope. She may give it a try if the pain is deep enough.

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I am a Christian with a question that is bothering me. We use the expression, “being absolved from our sins.” God does the absolving. So, when I forgive, am I absolving a person from their sins? If only God can forgive sins, then am I absolving the person from the injustice?

From the viewpoint of Christian theology, when God absolves sins, then those sins are basically forgotten, put aside, and a new relationship ensues between God and the one who sinned. People do not “absolve” when they forgive. That is God’s job. We, instead, offer goodness toward the one who acted unjustly. Our forgiving is like God’s, from a theological perspective, in that we have mercy on the other, we try to help the other, and we are interested in his or her well-being. We are not like God in our forgiveness in the one sense of not absolving the sin or literally forgetting it (instead, we tend to remember in new ways) or taking away any spiritual or natural consequence that results from the sin. And you are right: When we forgive, we are not forgiving sins, we are forgiving people for injustices against us.

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Is forgiving the same as getting rid of one’s anger toward someone?

Getting rid of anger toward the person who acted unfairly is one part of the definition of forgiveness, but not the only part. We first should make a distinction between healthy and unhealthy anger. Healthy anger stays within proper boundaries and does not impose or threaten. Unhealthy anger is deep and abiding, sometimes referred to as resentment, and can be harmful to self or others. Forgiveness is intended to reduce or even eliminate unhealthy anger. At the same time, there is more to forgiveness than this. A person can reduce unhealthy anger and be rather dismissive of the other person (“She is not worth the effort. I will just put her aside.”) Forgiveness is never dismissive of others, but instead the forgiver tries to see the unconditional worth in the one being forgiven.

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My son has been bullied in school and I have asked him to forgive and at the same time to report any bullying to the teacher. He is very angry with me about the idea of forgiving because he says the other students will laugh at him. He is in seventh grade. How can he forgive so that others do not see him as a weakling?

How your son understands forgiveness and how he manifests it are very important in this context. First, he needs to know that forgiveness starts with his internal response of reduced resentment. It can be a struggle to get rid of intense anger, but that is a first step. He might begin this by seeing what those who bully usually bring to that situation: a deep sense of their own insecurity, anger over something unrelated to the one being bullied (such as being abused in the home), and low self-esteem. This might help your son to see that the bully is emotionally wounded. From there, once your son is less angry, he can show forgiveness without actually using the words, “I forgive you.” Your son, for example, could become ready to help the other with a school assignment. He could respond with confidence–looking the other in the eye and to do so without malice– if the one who bullies asks a question. He must see that to forgive is not to give in to the other’s demands. To forgive is not to repudiate justice. As he sees that forgiveness comes from a position of strength, he may be more ready to try it. As we both know, it ultimately is his choice, although your encouraging him is part of his growth as a person.

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What if it will create even more tension if you go to a person and say, “I forgive you.” Could this start a big argument if she is not ready to hear it?

The short answer is: Yes, you are correct. An argument could ensue after you proclaim your forgiveness. Yet, forgiveness does not have a rigid set of rules associated with it. A person can forgive without ever using the word “forgiveness” to the one forgiven. There are many ways to show and express forgiveness: with a smile, with a new attention to what a person is saying, with a returned phone call, with a kind word about the person to others. If you think that proclaiming, “I forgive you” will cause an argument, then either do not say those particular words or hold them until later, until the person may seem ready to hear them. Your forgiveness can be sincere without using those particular words. As a final point, your forgiveness can be complete from your end, not necessarily from the other person’s end, who may or may not accept your gift, as you forgive without words of forgiveness. It can be complete because you are showing compassion and concern for the person who was unfair to you.

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